Imagine that you could see the following improvements on your Web site, with a total of only four weeks of work:
* 244% increase in conversion rate
* 286% increase in overall sales
Those numbers are from

Here is another set of numbers to consider:
* Sales/Conversion rate improvement: 100%
* Traffic/visitor count improvement: 150%
* User performance/productivity improvement: 161%
* Use of specific (target) features improvement: 202%
That set of numbers came from

Wow! If you are in charge of (or derive income from) a Web site or software development, how many fingers would you cut off for these levels of improvement? Well, there is good news for you: you do not have to lose any fingers. You just need to follow usability theory.

The first set of numbers comes from Creative Good, a design consulting firm run by Mark Hurst after performing four weeks of site redesign. The second set of numbers comes from Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, as a result of a 135% increase in site usability. Both of these people have proven, decades long track records of significantly improving the usability of applications and Web sites. They are also the two main influences on my running water Web design philosophy.

Mr. Hurst pays special attention to the user’s experience. Mr. Nielsen uses scientific methodologies (control groups, eye tracking, in depth statistical analysis, and so on) to choose amongst proposed designs. I would have to say that the numbers above (just a brief sampling of the numbers available on each of their Web sites) speaks for itself.

As I have already written, usability is the killer feature. There is not a single site out there on the Web which is unique. Someone else is always offering the same products, content, or service for the same price you are, sometimes cheaper. Your Web site, product, content, and service is a commodity and users have choices. If you are first to market today, tomorrow you will be one of a dozen, and by next week you will be in a sea of hundreds. Google makes their living by stealing everyone else’s lunch by improving usability.

Remember, you are not the end user. Your high priced design consultant is not the end user. The Internet elite pushing AJAX and Web 2.0 are the not majority of end users. My grandmother, your six year old daughter, the person who thinks that the CD-ROM drive is a coffee holder is the typical end user. Unless you are making a tool for use by programmers, asking your programming friends if something is usable is worse than worthless, it is harmful. Think about that. Re-read those numbers.

I have never, ever spoken to an end user who said, “gee, I had a really hard time figuring out how to make a purchase from that site and I just gave up, but wow, it sure was pretty, I will be sure to attempt to shop there again.” I have never seen an AJAX or Web 2.0 proponent show hard evidence using testing methods that follow sound methodology prove that their techniques improve sales, conversion rates, traffic levels, hit counts, new user registrations, or any other bottom line number. I have never seen a consultant or graphics designer who specializes in confusing yet beautiful site design to offer a single number that shows that by reducing usability they improved the metrics that truly matter.

Another interesting fact is that the rules of usability are fairly static. For example, initial efforts at 3D interfaces showed that they were just as useless in 2006 as they were in 1986. Improvements and changes in technology do not equate to a change in the users’ needs; they are merely different ways of addressing the users’ needs. TiVo did not suddenly create the desire for people to view movies whenever they wanted. It simply addressed the desire, and did it better than a traditional VCR did, which did it better than HBO did, which did it better than the movie theater did. The Internet did not create a demand for adult content. It simply did it better than… you can imagine the list. These are examples of how improvements in usability generate big bucks. If you do not believe me, compare the sales figures for iPods versus portable CD players.

So yes, if you want to improve your Web site’s performance, by all means consider a redesign. But do not settle for the most attractive design or the design with the most features. Choose a design that will demonstratively improve you bottom line. That means listening labs, observations of users at work, log analysis comparing the new design being given to random users versus the current design, and so on. That means using scientific rigor. Even if you do not have a big budget, just grabbing ten people who have never used your site or application and represent typical users (family, friends, spouses, etc. are a great source of free testers) and watching them trying to perform typical tasks while timing them can help you. But to sit in an ivory tower or a conference room where groupthink kicks in and nodding your heads saying, “Yes, I like this much better” will not help you.